Hot on the heels of our report earlier this week that Privacy International has launched a new database of companies working in the Surveillance Industry, comes news of a report to be launched at the Black Hat security convention. Taking place this week in Las Vegas it will highlight examples of Central Asian governments making use of such equipment.
The report, which has been put together by various cyber-security researchers, including those working for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, will show that both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have invested in top of the range internet surveillance equipment from Western organisations.
First to Kazakhstan, where a report by the Reuters news agency claims that hackers working on behalf of the government have been attempting to plant spyware on the computers of western lawyers and other associates of Kazakh dissidents based overseas. In this case, the dissidents were publishers who had published leaked Government emails in an online Kazakh newspaper.
It was an unusual attempt at cyber-espionage in that it was done using fake emails sent via an Indian company and it seems to have come alongside a campaign of real surveillance and also the threat of physical violence.
The fact it made use of technology which a disreputable government such as the one in Kazakhstan was able to buy perfectly legally from a Western company to use in an aggressive campaign against those criticizing the regime must raise a great many questions.
On to a story by the Associated Press news agency about the use of intercept technology by countries which regularly violate basic human rights. One such country is Uzbekistan which, along with Kazakhstan, has been sold intercept technology by companies such as Verint (an Israeli-American business) and Nice Systems.
The technology is capable of mirroring the sort of intercept programmes that it has been revealed the US and British governments have been running over all their citizens in recent years.
In Uzbekistan, it has been used to quickly arrest and round up anyone who has been discussing sensitive information or subject-matters on the phone or in emails.
Incredible though it might seem, there is a blacklist of countries which these companies are not supposed to sell to. But it is incredibly short, and at the present time essentially consists of Syria and North Korea.
This means that there is nothing to stop western companies from selling surveillance equipment to all manner of horrible regimes which will use them to repress political opposition, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. Its use can, and does, frequently lead to people being arrested, imprisoned for many years, and even being killed simply for saying or writing the wrong thing.
The Privacy International database which we reported on earlier this week is intended to shed some light on this shadiest of industries, but it will obviously take time for the impact of this to be felt.
In the meantime, should the people of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the countless other nations which routinely monitor their citizen’s online activity, want to be able to speak openly online without fear of reprisals, they will need to take steps themselves to protect their online privacy.
Downloading and using a VPN would seem to be the obvious place to start, and as awareness of the technology grows in these countries, so too does their use.
But with industry regulations still woefully inadequate, and too many companies happy to make a fast buck at the expense of people’s basic freedoms, it seems to be the only way that people can be sure that they are safe, secure, and private when going online.